National Geographic News
Last year, conservationist J. Michael Fay completed a 2,000-mile (3,200- kilometer), fifteen-month walk through central Africa in some of the world's most pristine forests. Now, the expedition leader for the National Geographic Society and an ecologist for the Wildlife Conservation Society has undertaken another challenge: a personal campaign to preserve nearly 250,000 hectares (618,000 acres) of forest in Gabon as a national park.
National Geographic News: You were in the African bush for fifteen months. How has that changed your perspective on conservation?
Dr. J. Michael Fay: As a conservationist, I would says it's a double-edged sword. Because when you're out there, you realize how much is left. There's such abundanceit's so huge, it goes on forever. You can walk for fifteen months and basically be in the woods the whole time and not have to traverse areas that are inhabited by humans. And you think, "Wow, that's cool. This place is at the ends of the Earth; it will never be touched." Then you look at the map and the logging activity and you look at the human expansion and you think, "This place is all going to disappear in the next seven to ten years."
It makes you wake up to the fact that human beings, even in the 21st century, still don't regard natural resources as something precious. Because if they did, there would be a worldwide effort to preserve these places rather than extract wood out of them as quickly as possible with zero regard for ecosystems, while wasting most of that wood before you get it to the market. So from my perspective, it was pretty depressing.
NG News: Do you think there's anyone in particular to blame? Or is there no one person or group we can point to as the source of the problem?
Fay: I think the human species is what it is. It evolved to extract as many resources as it possibly could from the environment to survive better and better. That's kind of what humans are programmed to do. And to do the opposite of that, to conserve, I think is a very difficult thing for people to even comprehend, let alone enact. It's kind of counter-evolutionary, and I think it takes a lot of education and a lot of foresight. If humans want to survive on this planet without having some kind of catastrophic event take out large percentages of the population someday in the future, then they're going to have to make that shift. A lot of people talk about it, a lot of people understand it, but it's really hard to make that last jump and actually say, "Okay, I'm going to make a switch."
NG News: You're now trying to have nearly 250,000 hectares of forest land in Gabon designated as a national park. Why did you choose that particular area?
Fay: Well, there's a river in almost the dead center of Gabon called the Ivindo which has an amazing set of waterfalls. It's a big river, probably a hundred or so meters wide, of slow, black water, and it drains almost all of northeastern Gabon. These chutes, these waterfallstwo in particular called Mingouli and Kongoumake this place an attraction.
An Italian named Giuseppe Vassallo, who died about a year and a half ago promoted this place as a national park because he said it was the best forest in Gabon. He talked about it and lobbied for it and cajoled people, but it just never quite happened. We walked across this block that he'd always talked about, and I actually flew over it with him in '98. We looked at the logging companies coming in from the west at a very rapid rate, and so we tried to design a walk in this place that didn't go through any logging. And we discovered the highest concentration of giant elephants that we'd seen on the entire walk. It's probably the only place left in the central African forest with elephants that are abundant and with a large percentage of very large malestusks that no one has seen in a very long time, one hundred pounds on a side. Giant elephantsit's something you just don't see because they've been poached out of the population. [And] naive gorillassomething that we hadn't seen on the entire trip. You can tell they're naive because when they see you they don't run away, they don't look alarmed, they don't act alarmed, they don't vocalize. The males don't charge at all and they get very curious. They come to see you and they approach well within the danger zone. They sit there for hours and they just stare as if it's something they've never seen before, and it's pretty obvious that they haven't.
You travel a little bit farther along and there's this mountain that we'd been navigating toward for a few weeks, and it's again full of elephants, and it's got all kinds of beautiful topography and rocky cliffs. It's a real sort of hidden forest, and it really gives you a feeling of great isolation being up on this mountain plateau.
So we started walking south of the mountain and pretty soon we came upon an elephant trail that lead us a little bit astray. It lead us to the east of where we wanted to go but we kept on following it and it just got bigger and bigger and bigger. I looked at the map and it was obvious that it was navigating us right toward a clearing. Long before you get to an elephant clearing you can tell where you're going, because the elephant trail opens up to like two meters wide, it's covered with dung, and there's a huge amount track that are on these "highways." It's a lot like how major highway arteries in the States get bigger as they go into the citythat's basically what it is for elephantsit's an "elephant city." So, we get there, and there it isthis clearing that no one has ever seen before, no conservationist even could have imagined existed in Gabon. This place is just abounding with wildlife and you think "This place really is what old Giuseppe said it was." Even though he had never walked in it, it was as if he just knew this place was the best. The place is called Langoue and it still exists.
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